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New PhD thesis on Singaporean Malay TV by Ivan Kwek

January 24, 2011

In November 2010 I had the pleasure of examining a PhD thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The thesis was defended by Ivan Kwek and its title is “Producing Television, Re-Visioning Singapore Malays”. I am pleased to report that the thesis was a clear pass requiring only minor typographical corrections.

In this ethnographic study of the early days of the Singaporean Malay TV channel Suria in 2000-2001, Kwek argues that there is more contingency and indeterminacy to television production than generally allowed for in either the existing scholarship or the industry itself. Adopting a practice approach, Kwek pursues the idea that media production can be researched in an open-ended manner as a ‘congeries of practices’ (Hobart) rather than as a perfectly bounded object of study. The Singaporean state, he concludes, may have Suria ‘at its disposal’ but this is never straightforward, as the state can never fully discipline the agency of those who make the channel. Kwek stresses that by studying the making of a channel rather than a programme (as has normally been the case, e.g. Dornfeld) the messiness of media production becomes apparent, as does producers’ efforts to manage it.

This is a fluently written, logically organised thesis with clear signposting along the way and a helpful recap in the concluding chapter. Chapter 1 provides the background and rationale for studying ethnographically the production practices of a small channel in Singapore. Chapter 2 is a thorough literature review and poststructuralist position-taking in relation to the existing political economy and cultural studies approaches. Chapter 3 provides three ways of understanding the making of Suria whilst challenging any simple linear account of its birth and development. Chapters 4 and 5 draw from Kwek’s ethnographic research to argue that TV production at Suria is inextricable from the complex and contradictory attempts to make it into the voice and image of the ‘New Malay’ (Melayu Baru) in line with governmental policy. The thesis ends with a chapter-by-chapter recapitulation and some concluding remarks.

The thesis makes a substantial contribution to three main bodies of scholarship. First, it is a timely addition to the sociology and anthropology of media which is currently taking a ‘practice turn’ (Couldry 2004, Braeuchler and Postill 2010, Bird 2010). Second, it contributes an excellent ethnographic account to a still fledgling area of scholarship, namely the study of media and social change in Southeast Asia. The historical moment captured here (2000-2001) is particularly important, as Kwek’s fieldwork took place at a time of rapid transition following the 1997 financial and political crisis but just before the 9/11 attacks against America. In addition, as a former TV producer himself with Suria’s parent company, he had rare access to producers – a fact clearly reflected in the quality of the data presented. Third, this is an original contribution to the interdisciplinary study of television production beyond its traditional Anglo-American heartland that queries the presumed boundedness of its object of study in interesting ways.

Conceptually, the thesis makes very good use of a range of original and borrowed concepts and turns of phrase (e.g. ‘congeries of practices’, ‘production practices’, ‘calibrated coercion’, ‘circuit of culture’, etc.) that serve the unfolding analysis well.

References

Bird, S.E. ed. 2010. The Anthropology of News and Journalism: Global perspectives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bräuchler, B. and J. Postill (eds) 2010. Theorising Media and Practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Couldry, Nick. 2004. Theorising media as practice. Social Semiotics 14 (2):115-132.

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